From the Field: Bill Buck in Cape Horn, Day 16
February 5, 2012; Isla Londonderry, Puerto Fortuna, approximately 54º54’S, 70º26’W
Last night after dinner, I stood under the tarp that tents the hold where our dryers are kept, listening to the rain. Juan came out and said, “You enjoy this weather!” I looked at him quizzically, and he continued, “I can tell by the expression on your face.” And you know what? It’s true! I love bad weather–maybe not snow, it’s too soft–the aural component is critical. As long as I can remember I have loved rainy days, and the local version with sleet only adds to my delight. And a good thing too!
This morning we moved to another harbor on Isla O’Brien. The weather forecast was not encouraging. However, the sun kept trying to come out, and all day it shone brightly, on and off, but only for a few minutes at a time. In this region, the weather is a losing battle. Those little bursts of sunshine provided momentary false hope in a day that ended up being dominated by sleet. In between the bouts of sun, the clouds would thicken, the wind would blow, and the sleet would pelt us relentlessly. Thank the heavens for good rain gear!
This morning’s site, Caleta Lagunas (54º53’S, 70º27’W), as the name indicates, was a small bay right below a series of lakes. To see the lakes, I had to climb a small rise, and then they were visible as part of the breathtakingly beautiful scenery. I paused for a minute to appreciate it, and then I started collecting in earnest. I found all the usual suspects, and since we have not previously collected on this island, everything was fair game. I worked down to the lake and collected amongst the rocks while the wind whipped the water into waves. A number of interesting mosses were my reward.
Near the top of the hill, I came across a large patch of a dung moss, Tayloria magellanica, encasing much of the tail bone of an upland goose. This is a group of mosses in which many species are restricted to animal substrates, such as bone or dung. They have evolved special mechanisms for finding these spotty substrates. Capsules on many of the mosses release an odor which mimics that of decaying animal remains or dung, thus attracting flies. The capsules are often brightly colored and have a platform upon which flies can land. The fly, now realizing it has been duped, flies away, carrying with it a plethora of sticky spores that have become stuck to its body. When the fly eventually finds carrion or dung–the intended substrate of the spores–the life cycle starts anew. This is the family of mosses upon which Lily is doing her doctoral research, so I always share such material with her.
After exhausting what I could find on the Magellanic tundra, I returned to the coast to collect those mosses restricted to within a few feet of the high tide mark. One moss in particular, Orthotrichum (Muelleriella) crassifolium, is characteristic of coastal rocks, and I try to remember to collect it at every site so that its distribution would be a good representation of where we have visited. About this time our zodiac arrived, and as we climbed aboard the sleet began once again.
After lunch we moved across the O’Brien Channel to Isla Londonderry, another new island for us. A momentary lull in the bad weather lured us into the field. Matt, Laura, Lily, and I chose to head to a point at one end of our port. A dense understory of Gaultheria and barberry, with stunted trees of southern beech rose precipitously from the sea. As Matt and Laura worked near the shore, I climbed up to the highest point to see if the vegetation changed.
About the time I reached the summit, the sleet really kicked in. Pellets of sleet, 1/8-1/4″ in diameter were being blown almost horizontal, and after having them evade my eye glasses and hit me in the eyes a few times, I thought it best to seek shelter for a while. So, I sat down among the vegetation with my back to the wind, and watched and listened to the weather. As it fell harder and harder against the hood of my rain coat, it began to sound like the inside of a drum. Despite it all, I couldn’t help but smile. By the time the worst of it was over, the ground was completely covered with about 1/2″ of ice. The ground was now quite slippery, and since finding terrestrial mosses now seemed out of the question, I decided it was time to start working my way back down the steep slope. Below, I could see the red coats of Matt and Laura, but I couldn’t see that they were frantically signaling the ship for an early pick-up.
By the time I got within talking distance, a member of the crew was finally getting into the Zodiac to come get us. As the Zodiac approached, the sleet picked up again. We sat in the bottom of the Zodiac, rather than on the sides, for the ride back to the ship. The sleet continued to accumulate in the Zodiac, and it was only the crabbiness of the others, brought on by physical discomfort from the weather, that kept me from throwing snowballs. The choppiness of the bay meant we were constantly sprayed with salt water, which served to increase my glee (but the others’ grimaces). I’m not sure what they thought as I broke out in laughter over and over. Now, almost three hours later, Blanka is the only one still out in the field. She’s the only one, other than me, who not only isn’t bothered by the weather, but relishes it.
Tomorrow we have only a half day in the field and then return to Punta Arenas. After being away from home for a month, I’m ready to head back, but hope tomorrow’s collecting ends on a sunny note.
Ed. note: NYBG scientist and Mary Flagler Cary Curator of Botany, Bill Buck is currently on expedition to the islands off Cape Horn, the southernmost point in South America, to study mosses and lichens. Follow his journeys on Plant Talk.
Bill Buck’s Previous Reports From the Field: